The legacy of two prophets, one black, one Jewish

A plea to restore the common cause of human justice expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King and often echoed by Jewish history and leaders.

Crosscut archive image.

A portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.

A plea to restore the common cause of human justice expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King and often echoed by Jewish history and leaders.

Let me start with two quotations. The first is from Dr. Martin Luther King: "On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, Is it safe? Expediency asks the question, Is it politic? And Vanity comes along and asks the question, Is it popular? But Conscience asks the question Is it right?"

The second quotation is from a letter sent to Dr. King by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching with King in Selma, Alabama in March, 1965: "The day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification.  . . . I have rarely in my life been privileged to hear a sermon as glorious as the one you delivered at the service in Selma prior to the march.  I felt . . . as though my legs were praying."
Relations between the Jewish and African American communities turn with the tides of politics and world events.  At the moment, many people in both communities don’t feel like they have very much in common.  Stereotypes have begun to replace the working relationships and friendships of the past.  In celebrating Martin Luther King’s 82nd birthday last week, Jewish and black leaders came together across the country to mark the moments of struggle and redemption for dignity and human rights that both groups fought for in the Civil Rights era.

In Seattle, political science professor and pastor Carl Livingston Jr. addressed the Friday evening service at Temple de Hirsch Sinai, reminding the congregation and invited guests that Jews and blacks share a heritage of standing up for justice and freedom. Yet Livingston was also quick to acknowledge that some leaders in the African American community in Seattle were not ready to join Jews in search of common cause and that others put stock in the poisonous anti-Semitism spread by Louis Farrakhan.  He called for both communities to coalesce around an agenda that would address issues of racism, poverty, and economic development.

What is striking about the Dr. King’s links to Rabbi Heschel is that both men were deep thinkers about the human condition, not just their specific causes, and both prompted opposition within their own communities.

Heschel, professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1946 to 1972, wrote influential works about the nature of man and the concept of time.  Heschel fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939 and suffered the anguish of losing his mother and sisters in The Holocaust.  In books such as The Prophets, and God in Search for Man, he uniquely framed our search for a higher being in the form of timeless questions.

As a Jewish leader who helped draft the Vatican II document that updated Catholic doctrine to remove anti-Semitic references, Heschel returned to America to pose the question: "How can we love our neighbor when we flee from him and leave him abandoned, congested in the neglected ghettos of the inner city?”

Dr. King’s journey from civil rights organizer to moral philosopher also led him to advocate for Israel’s right to exist. He was not afraid to show his kinship with another people who historically had suffered oppression in a strange land.  Despite critics who felt that they should stick to their main causes, both King and Heschel spoke out against American military actions in Vietnam. As King wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

It's time for Jewish and African American leaders to forge a new consensus, inspired by the examples of King and Heschel. One opportunity is for both groups in Seattle to speak out against the excessive force used in the killing of Indian carver John T. Williams and to question why city leadership is not addressing recent incidents of police using unnecessary force against minorities in a systematic way.  African Americans and Jews could fight for a fairer tax system in Washington state and for the state to fulfill its charter to provide quality education to all students.  A willingness to speak out and risk the scorn of the majority would be a genuine tribute to the legacy of these two prophets in their own time.


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